The man behind the voice
New York is a city awash in sports. A plethora of professional teams provide year-round entertainment, injecting the already hectic streets of Gotham with an added dose of drama and rivalry.
Like the metropolis they inhabit, the local fan base is loud, tough and demanding. They know their sports, and they take them to heart. And they certainly expect the most out of those who venture to compete with the letters "NY" sewn into their uniforms.
One of the more familiar figures on the Big Apple sports scene is Howie Rose, a man whose harmonious voice and encyclopedic knowledge have made him a fan favorite for years.
As a Jewish kid growing up in Bayside, Queens, in the early 1960s, Rose fell in love with baseball and dreamed of one day becoming an announcer. He has been blessed to fulfill that dream, currently serving as the voice of the New York Mets baseball team on WFAN radio, and also as the television broadcaster for hockey's New York Islanders on MSG Plus.
Rose is known for combining a heartfelt passion for sports with vivid descriptions of the unfolding action, often dazzling his audience by recalling specific plays or scores from games played years or even decades ago.
Not surprisingly, he was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame earlier this year.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, a couple of hours before the Mets took the field, Rose granted an exclusive interview to The Jerusalem Post, providing us with a glimpse of the man behind the voice.
Tell me a little about your background as a Mets fan. Wouldn't it have been easier to root for the Yankees?
It began in 1961 when I was seven years old and got my introduction to baseball. My dad was a huge Yankee fan. At the time, we lived in the Bronx, and that was the year that Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle had their great homerun race, with both of them on one of the great teams of all time – the '61 Yankees. So I was just totally immersed in baseball from that year on, and then in 1962, when the Mets debuted, I was narcissistic enough to think, "Wow, this is great, this team was created just for me! Here I am, a brand-new baseball fan, and now I have got a team of my own." So I took a certain emotional and even proprietary interest in them from day one.
I remember the first game was at night and I was going to school the next day, and I couldn't stay up and watch or listen to the game for very long. I went into my parents' room early the next morning when I was getting ready to leave for school, and I said to my dad, "How did the Mets do last night?" and he told me they had lost. I remember I was disappointed, so that kind of meant that I was hooked from the very beginning.
How did your family take that newfound loyalty to a different team?
First of all, I never in those days rooted against the Yankees. They were every bit as much a part of me as my DNA because of my family background. My dad used to tease me a lot about being a Met fan in the early days. He used to dig me about it, but I'll tell you that in 1969, he got tickets a couple of months in advance for one of those huge games with the Cubs in September, and I never saw him so excited. I was in school the day the Mets won the World Series in 1969, and when I came home, I heard that he had almost jumped up and hit his head on the ceiling from excitement at the last out. So I think I brought him into the ranks, too.
Did you dream of becoming a player?
Yeah, we all did. In the early '60s, after I first discovered baseball, I said that I wanted to play for the Yankees, and my dad said: "Well, you can't. You are Jewish."
I had no idea what the world was all about, but he explained to me that the Yankees were not the most progressive organization in that respect. You know, when you are seven or eight that stuff doesn't really mean much to you, but it stays with you. It sticks. I really did want to be a baseball player, but I knew very, very early on that I did not have the talent to do it. Because of that, I dedicated myself to becoming a broadcaster, since I didn't want to waste the passion that I had.
When did you make the decision to go into broadcasting?
Unconsciously it was from when I started watching television. I remember getting a kick out of the guys who did game shows in those days. There was a show called Beat the Clock, and a guy named Bud Collyer was the emcee. He would later become the emcee on To Tell the Truth. Back then, the announcers used to wear these big long narrow cylinder microphones tied around their necks. My dad had a Polaroid camera, and after he was done, I would take the empty spool of film and give it to my mom and she would tie a string around it, and I would put it around my neck and make believe I was interviewing people. I was like, four or five years old at the time, so unconsciously I guess I had an inkling then that I would go into broadcasting.
You used to do a talk show. How did you end up joining the Mets?
I knew as my career evolved that it was something I would love eventually to do – to get involved with the Mets as a broadcaster, because when you have a passion for something and you believe in your ability to do it, it can be relentless. In the post-season of 1986, WHN created a show called Mets Extra. I was working at WCBS radio at the time, and I got word that WHN was looking to make that a permanent show and at the same time have a morning sports guy. I just thought, "Well, that's made for me," so I went after that one and got the job, and really that was the turning point in my career. When Mets Extra was made permanent for the '87 season, that is when I became affiliated with the Mets, and I looked at that as the opening that I needed to hopefully find my way into the booth.
What is the difference between broadcasting on television and radio?
On television you are essentially narrating, while on radio you are describing, and you can never describe enough. You can certainly talk too much, but you can never describe enough. And the challenge of taking that blank mental canvas and creating images that are real and in a best-case scenario almost tangible is to me the greatest challenge in sports broadcasting. And I hope I do it justice, because it is so hard to do. There is always a detail that you worry you may have left out or did not do justice to.
Do you see your goal as entertaining the listener, informing him or educating him?
All of the above. They are all intertwined. You can never lose sight of the fact that it is entertainment, especially when you get to a point in the season where it looks like your team isn't competing for a pennant. But you know that there are a lot of loyal listeners who want to be informed about what is going on. They want to be educated. At the same time, you want to do it with the right touch of humor. You don't want to overdo it, because it is easy to morph into silliness, and I think you always have to discipline yourself not to get into that trap.
Is it more difficult to broadcast when the Mets are not performing well?
Sure it is. Conversely there is nothing like working for a team and broadcasting their games when they are winning. I can remember in '06 the incredible excitement and tension of so many of the games both during the year and in the post-season. And also in '07 and '08, because they both went down to the last game of the season. That daily soap-operatic tension is allencompassing and it consumes you, but that's the reward of this, really.
There seems to be an inherent contradiction between being an objective announcer, and the passion that one feels as a fan. How do you walk that line? How do you balance those two?
It has to come naturally. People think when you get excited when your team wins or does something well that you have lost your objectivity. Well, that's nonsense. First of all, you have to know your audience. I am broadcasting Mets games on radio to a predominantly and overwhelmingly high number of listeners who are invested emotionally in the Mets. They are my constituents. The way I look at it is that we are all together in this. I want them to think that they can trust me – that is the biggest thing. They know my background. They know I grew up a Met fan and that it means a lot to me when they win and it hurts me when they lose. But they also have to know that they can trust my description of the game so that I am not sugarcoating things that a Met does poorly, or overemphasizing something they do well. It sounds like a complicated line to walk, but if you just have that sort of foundation to work from where you are committed to telling the truth, you can do that passionately.
I have listened to your broadcasts, and you seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Mets history. Where does that come from?
Well let's put it this way: The pages are getting yellower as the years move on. It is a little harder for me to recall certain things. But what happened is that I have lived it. I remember a lot of things firsthand because I was either at the ballpark or watching things on TV.
I will give you an example. I went to a game in 1966 against the Giants at Shea [Stadium], and the Mets were facing Juan Marichal, the great Hall of Fame pitcher whom they had never beaten at that point. In the bottom of the sixth inning, they were down 4-0, and Marichal had a perfect game going. The Mets starting pitcher Dennis Ribant was due up. I have no recollection of why Wes Westrum, the Mets manager, let Ribant hit for himself, but he did. Ribant hit this little hopper through the middle for a base hit, and there goes the perfect game. Eventually the Mets chipped away, and Ron Swoboda won it in the bottom of the ninth inning with a pinch-hit homer. It was so unbelievably exciting – remember, I was 12 years old. I went home from that game with my friends swearing I would never forget that date – it was August 4, 1966 – and I said, this is the greatest baseball game I will ever see in my life. I was just so connected to the team emotionally and so excited by that particular game. It is just an example of why I can remember certain games, because I made a mental note not to forget them, and they stay with you.
Much has been made of the Jewish love affair with baseball. How do you explain it? What is it about baseball that attracts Jews, and vice versa?
I am not nearly that smart. I have no idea. I don't even have an opinion on that. I just know that I was attracted to it because I got it from my dad. And I would like to think that the family connection that we share as Jews is pretty deep, and when something is handed down from a parent to a child, whether it's a sport or an activity or a passion for anything in particular, it sort of deepens the bond.
I have never thought about Jews in particular having a love for baseball. There are so relatively few of us who have played that maybe that's part of it. Maybe we all see ourselves as the embodiment of what could have been if we only had the skill. I wouldn't want to even venture a guess as to why there haven't been more, because I don't really feel that I can speak for any culture or ethnicity. But I do know that Sandy Koufax is still 20 feet tall to me, and I remember when he didn't pitch in the 1965 World Series because of Yom Kippur, and it made a pretty profound impact on me.
What did you feel at the time?
I thought, "Wow, this being Jewish stuff must be serious!" Where I grew up in Bayside in the mid-1960s was predominantly and almost exclusively Jewish. I didn't know anything about being a minority. I lived in a neighborhood where school was closed for Simhat Torah and Shavuot, never mind Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It never dawned on me that everybody wasn't Jewish.
But when Koufax took off for Yom Kippur, it resonated. At that immature age, I didn't fast on Yom Kippur, and we weren't particularly observant. It is only in later years that I have latched onto certain things. A lot of it goes back to when my dad died in 1978. I had never gone to temple on the High Holy Days, but the year he died, something just made me get up and go to temple with a friend and say Yizkor. And that is basically what I still do. I am not terribly observant, but Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur I am not going to work.
Have you ever visited Israel?
No. In fact, my older daughter is hoping to go on Birthright because she knows some people who have gone. With my professional life as it is with baseball and hockey, it is not the easiest thing in the world to plan that kind of vacation, but I am hopeful that someday I will.
Do you speak Hebrew or Yiddish?
Very basic. I went to Hebrew school, but we didn't take it all that seriously. I remember once when we weren't behaving, Rabbi Bernstein, the teacher, told us to take out the latest issue ofJewish Current Events, read it and answer the questions in the back. And there was one question that said, "What position does Moshe Dayan play in Israel's defense?" and I wrote: Shortstop. That's how seriously we took it. But at least it gave me a little bit of a background. But I know very, very little Yiddish.
Do you ever use it on air?
I do throw a word or two out on the air now and then just to mix it up. When the Mets acquired Jewish outfielder Shawn Green in 2006, I said to myself, if I am narrating the inning when he hits his first homerun as a Met, I am going to say, "Zay gezunt" [literally "be well" in Yiddish, used as a parting greeting]. And when that ball went out, I said it. That was my homerun call. This is one of the only things I ever planned in advance to say.
Do you think baseball is pricing itself out of popularity?
It scares me, because the demographics of the crowd have changed, and with that, so has the level of enthusiasm. Shea Stadium used to literally shake – you could feel it moving under your feet. We haven't played a big game here in Citi Field yet except for a couple of games against the Phillies and the Yankees. But we haven't heard this place rock yet.
Part of it, of course, is that the Mets have to get to a point where the games mean everything, and they haven't yet. There are way too many seats going unsold that would be better filled by people who are then going to buy all the concessions and souvenirs that are for sale here. But I am concerned that we have lost a certain segment of the grassroots fans, and we have got to get them back.
In what other ways has the game changed in the past 20 or 30 years?
The beauty of this game is that in some ways it really has not changed all that much, while in others it has changed tremendously. Look at the pitching, the way the bullpen is specialized now, the way the pitch count is so closely monitored. And then there was the addition of the designated hitter rule going back 40 years, which I abhor. It has been a big change and certainly not one for the better, in my opinion. But when that umpire says, "Play ball," it is still 60 feet, 6 inches from the pitching rubber to home plate, and it is still 90 feet between bases, and that is what I love about this game. Other sports have tried to reinvent themselves. But the game of baseball is almost as pure and beautiful today as it was in 1869 when they played the first professional game, and that's what keeps me coming back.
As kids, many of us looked up to ballplayers as heroes. To what extent do you think their off-field antics should factor in to viewing them as such?
I have long since divorced myself from looking at an athlete as a hero. We have seen way too much in the real world and learned what a real hero is to ever think that somebody who hits or throws a baseball or shoots a hockey puck is a hero. But I do know that I grew up looking up to a lot of these guys. I think the more we know, the more incumbent it is upon parents to tell kids that the guy you emulate may be terrific on the field or on the ice, but he is not perfect, and the mistakes he made you should learn from so that you don't make them.
Earlier this year, you called the game when Johan Santana threw the first nohitter in Mets history. Did you think that would happen in your lifetime? How did it feel?
No, not even until a split second after the ball was nestled in catcher Josh Thole's glove did I believe it. When I left the house to go to the ballpark that night, there was nothing out of the ordinary. It was former Met Carlos Beltran's first game back in New York, so everyone was focused on how the fans would receive him and what kind of tribute he was going to get. And that is really what everything was centered around. The fact that Santana was due to pitch that night was almost an afterthought.
But when Santana got that third strike in the ninth inning it was unreal. It felt like winning a championship, and it was covered like winning a championship. The papers covered it the next day like there would be a ticker-tape parade.
Some people say that the Mets have lost the town to the Yankees and the Mets will always be the second team in New York. Nonsense! That is just nonsense. The Mets have owned this town before, and they are going through a rough patch right now. The way the no-hitter was covered reinforces the idea that this team will have its day, and when it does, they will own a significant chunk of this city.
What was the most painful moment for you as a broadcaster?
As a play-by-play guy, it was absolutely when Beltran took that third strike in the 2006 National League Championship Series and the Mets lost to the Cardinals. That was heartbreaking.
Why did he take it?
It was a hell of a pitch. He has gotten beaten up unfairly. It always looks bad when you don't get the bat off your shoulder. I have looked at the pitch probably a hundred times. It was a tremendous curveball. Symbolically when the season ends with a bat on your shoulders and you are a lone hit away from the pennant, it is tough to take. So unfortunately he is going to have live with that stigma, but I don't think it's fair. It was a great pitch, but as a broadcaster it was the most heartbreaking call I ever made.
Do you think in a year or two the Mets will be back in contention?
I sure hope so. They have a lot of work to do. But I am confident that the right management team is in place. They know what they are doing. They have some contracts they have to figure out. It is tough to build a team when you are smothered by bad deals. But hopefully they are in the midst of building something here. It is to a large degree cyclical, and hopefully it is starting to tick upwards.
I have nothing else to add other than: Let's go, Mets!